It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.
This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity. I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.
Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.
I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.
Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone.
Dignity? Ethics? Idealism? OK –I’m aware that I am painting myself as yet another East Coast American “elite liberal” female. Some might go so far as to brand me a sore loser, especially if they would have seen the poignant sadness with which I removed the “I’m with her!” bumper sticker from my bright yellow Fiat, or the way that I still wince each time I see my neighbor’s Trump-Pence lawn sign. I’m still with her – Secretary Clinton – in heart, mind, and spirit. The election is over and the sticker had to go; I don’t want my little car trashed by people who used to be content only giving me obscene gestures. Bigotry is now emboldened, and is well on the way to becoming normalized. Fiats are not immune to the ravages of election gloating.
The ideal of ethical leadership has been very important to me for a very long time, especially as I have lived and worked in many countries where “leaders” are in fact “rulers”, enforcing their self-serving will through fear, institutionalized misinformation, and the violent targeting of any opposition voices. Such rulers have no genuine care for the well-being of their subjects. Throughout those diverse experiences as an outsider in a foreign country, a somewhat smug part of me was always grateful that political leadership in America – while hardly virtuous or saintly – was ultimately about public service and a commitment to core ethical standards.
As of November 9th, I’ve lost any trace of that smugness.
One of the most respected thinkers in the literature of ethical leadership is Barbara Kellerman, who formulated her framework of seven traits of bad leaders. Kellerman made the important distinction that leadership should be evaluated not only on the basis of how “effective” it is (which is as far as most political science or economics thinking typically takes us) but also the degree to which such leadership is ethical. Thanks to her clear analysis, Kellerman’s framework helps me to understand the attributes by which a “bad” (unethical) leader is known, and over the years it has served me well in taking stock of leadership trajectories and trends around the world. I used it only recently as I considered the tragic decline in governance in a country I have known well and always felt much fondness for – Tanzania. Many in the political leadership of Tanzania are now taking the politically expedient step of targeting their very vulnerable LGBTI community with hateful, bigoted, punitive measures. There are almost no protections in the Tanzanian culture for the human dignity of LGBTI persons who now confront such vicious treatment, and I remain thankful that in the United States we have a robust form of government that can withstand the influences of corrosive, unethical leadership.
Or do we?
We’ll see. Today, on Thanksgiving, I reassert my gratitude for the ideal of ethical leadership, as that ideal offers me an excellent and very rational set of parameters to hold our new president accountable. I will be watching to evaluate his competence, his rigidity of attitudes and values, and the degree to which his temperament speaks more of intemperance than of wisdom and thoughtfulness. I will be gauging the degree to which his policies, decisions, and actions signify a callous, corrupt, or insular character. And while I am not yet of an opinion that Kellerman’s 7th trait is relevant, I will be sensitive to the reality and threat of evil.
I will even go further, and express my thanks for being an unrepentant “elite liberal” from one of the two coasts of this country (noting that while such an “elitist” constituency may be distributed mostly on either side of this country, we still accumulated almost two million more popular votes in favor of Hillary Clinton than votes in favor of her opponent). I am grateful that I reached my own decisions and views on this past election based on the persuasiveness of rational arguments and reliable facts, instead of being conned by fake news (some planted by Russian hackers), conspiracy theories, or other forms of manipulative or sensational misinformation. I am grateful that my heart is sufficiently large to feel compassion and concern for the plight of the undocumented, and of refugees and asylum seekers, as I value my ability to respond to the humanity, dignity, and divine spark in each person – especially those fleeing from war, gangs, terrorism, repression, or extreme poverty. I am grateful that I am not so small-minded and cruel as to lay the blame of the election loss on the few decent people who stood up for the dignity of very vulnerable transgender youth in our schools. I am grateful that my heart is moved by the recognition that what all people share in common is so much greater than what divides us – across religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, gender identity, ethnicity, race, or any other identities that characterize us. I am grateful for having a mind and an imagination that enables me to hold a long-term view, as I consider which short-term sacrifices we must endure if we are to save our planet from the ravages of climate change, conquer poverty, and overcome terrible diseases. I am grateful for my commitment to the importance of peace-building and all who work toward peace, and against the alpha-male global order that leads almost inevitably to terrible conflict, violence, and suffering. And I am grateful that – finally – people are beginning to question the inevitability of the patriarchy, even if (owing in no small measure to the very conservative votes of too many white women) we did not quite crack that last glass ceiling in the past election.
So yes, Happy Thanksgiving.
I hereby recommit myself to counting my blessings even on those days when I feel downcast. I’ll also work hard to secure those blessings for my family, my friends, my fellow citizens, for everyone, so that they too can express gratitude in years to come. Finally, I will hold tight to the blessing of resilience, as I face the challenging path ahead. So far that resilience, and the wonderful love and support of family and friends, has kept me going.
I’m very thankful for that indeed.